Fairfield Interview #2: Soul Lounge’s Bill McCleskey

This is the second interview in our Fairfield Small Business Challenge series.

To be a successful musician, you need to play live gigs. That, of course, means touring. What happens when you want to tour, but it’s almost impossible to find someone to help you do that?

A few years ago, Bill McCleskey discovered that, for soul musicians like himself, a touring infrastructure just didn’t exist. So he went about creating it. The result is Soul Lounge, a company that produces and promotes events in five cities in the South. As Bill branches out to different cities, he continues to help up-and-coming artists brand themselves, increase visibility and, crucially, embark on professional live shows around the country.

BP: How did you get into the soul business?

I was an artist. I’ve been a performer for a majority of my life. I did a lot of musical theatre, I was on tour with a musical theatre group. In late 2004, I released an independent CD called Who Is Bill Lee? It’s on CD Baby (CDBaby.com/billlee).

I was trying to book gigs for myself, and had a band and all that good stuff. I figured out, hey, I’m not making any money. Let me book my own shows and I would get my friends’ bands to open up for me. And that’s really where I found some opportunity in terms of making decent money and that’s really how Soul Lounge kind of evolved. I really enjoy putting on events more than performing myself. I’ve got a ton of friends who are soul artists all across the country. So it just seemed to make sense.

BP: I was reading one of your blog posts, and you mention that there’s good soul and bad soul. Could you elaborate a little on that?

Yeah, sure. Well, good soul, in referring to music that is, to me refers to music with good content. It’s all about the lyrics really and the direction of where the song’s being taken in terms of the lyrical content. A lot of music today in terms of R&B and soul music that we hear on the radio that sometimes we consider commercial music is also what a lot of soul artists call Popsicle music, because they are not talking about anything of substance.

There’s a lot of cool artists out now, even major artists, like John Legend, Anthony Hamilton. These are really cool soul artists who are current, but there are in turn just awesome soul artists who are unknown just because they don’t have a record deal. You know, independent artists, just touring and traveling. A lot of them do it full-time, a lot of them make good money performing as an independent artist.

BP: For an artist to get mainstream, do they have to pretty much be a Popsicle artist, or is there space in the mainstream for something a little better?

I personally don’t think so. I think if an artist stays true to who they are and maintain that integrity, you know, with their music, I think it’ll set them apart right now.

If you look at John Legend, or someone like Chrisette Michele, to me, those are artists who are really authentic soul musicians. They really stand out, versus somebody who gets a ton of radio rotations.

I think that a lot of times, when musicians go and perform in other countries, they get a lot more respect, a lot more love, so to speak. Because people appreciate it. Like now, I’d like to believe that there’s a movement of music lovers who are patronizing the true artists, and again there are some major artists who are really cool but a lot of them are not.

BP: Can you tell me about some really promising artists that you’ve worked with?

Oh yeah, there was this one guy, PJ Morton. He’s actually a well-known, he’s an independent artist. He has his own band and he’s a Grammy award-winning artist. He won a Grammy writing for India.Arie and he’s written for a ton of other people. In fact, he auditioned for a spot in Maroon 5’s band, and got the position. Right now he’s acting on tour with Maroon 5.

How Automation is Changing Jobs, Careers, and the Future Workplace

So yeah, it’s pretty amazing. He’s probably going to blow up and Gonna be a big deal now. There’s another guy named Darnell Levine, he went to school here in town at Middle Tennessee State University and he’s a really cool jazz artist who he plays the trumpet with his mouth just and sounds like a music trumpet but just has an incredible voice, great writer just moved up to New York. April Rucker is from right here in Nashville, Tennessee. Another awesome female vocalist.

Yeah, there’s just a plethora of really cool artists, that I think deserve some attention from record companies. I think it’s going to happen. Ultimately I think it’s just about demand though, you know a lot of the music today is just raunchy.

BP: Yeah, it is.

So, I think that it’s really…for record companies, it’s about what sells. What’s selling, and so, that’s why a lot of soul artists go to the UK and like a lot of my friends, touring London and Europe because they’re just getting a lot more gigs over there. They’re getting paid, you know. Just can’t make money here in the States.

BP: So why is it that crap is so profitable when it comes to music? I don’t really understand, because people respect good music, so what’s going on in the business?

Well, it sells. There’s a market out there that wants to hear and they buy it. And you know, bottom line is, folks are just not buying enough of soul music.

I think that it’s a trend. I don’t think it’ll last. Decades later, we’ll still be singing Marvin Gaye and Stevie Wonder. And that’s good music. I know, 30, 40 years from now, I doubt if we’ll be singing Wheezy or Jeezy; stuff like that, there’s no longevity in it. Unfortunately, there’s a market out there that actually has disposable income to purchase it. That’s what they’re doing.

BP: Have you worked with any divas, and can you talk about that experience?

I’ve dealt with people who thought they were greater and deserved the red carpet rolled out for them. You know, our event was initially built for independent artists. It was a grassroots movement. We didn’t necessarily roll out the red carpet for you, okay?

I recall this guy, one time, he came up from Alabama, and he just felt like he should’ve had dinner and wine and a glass and all this stuff. I just told him, “Look, man. We’re independent artists, we’re providing a platform for you to perform, and your bandf. Just relax.” But some people tried to tell him to face reality.

Typically, I have not dealt with that. Even with artists who may deserve to be divas, like PJ Morgan, he’s a guy who has got a Grammy under his belt. But he’s very down-to-earth. We did a show with Tommy Sims too. Tommy Sims wrote, a song for Eric Clapton and played with Bruce Springsteen as well. So he was even asking us what he could do to help us, so…typically if somebody has an ego, it’s definitely out of place in our world.

People are people, whether you’ve got a million dollars or two dollars. Because at the end of the day, we’re all trying to accomplish something, and we all need each other to do it.

Follow Bill’s travels and experiences at his Fairfield Road to Success Small Business Challenge blog.

Written by Drea Knufken

Drea Knufken

Currently, I create and execute content- and PR strategies for clients, including thought leadership and messaging. I also ghostwrite and produce press releases, white papers, case studies and other collateral.